Greenville News

Rebating Yucca funds makes sense

March 22, 2012

Sen. Lindsey Graham’s proposal to return to consumers the money that has been collected to pay for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository not only makes sense on its face, it could be an effective way to return the focus to this issue that needs to be addressed after decades of foot-dragging by the federal government.

Graham’s proposal would require that the president decide whether Yucca Mountain still is the preferred site for a nuclear waste repository. If it’s not, the legislation would require that the government take the $27 billion that’s in the fund and rebate three quarters of it to ratepayers in the 31 states that use nuclear power. The other quarter of the money would go to utilities so they can upgrade their on-site waste-storage facilities. That’s an appropriate distribution of those funds.

As Graham said in his news release regarding the legislation, “No one should be required to pay for an empty hole in the Nevada desert.”

Yet that’s exactly what has been happening since 1987. That’s when the federal government began collecting utility surcharges from ratepayers in those 31 states. In South Carolina alone, consumers have contributed $1.3 billion to the fund that would build the promised waste repository. The repository was proposed and approved in order to take nuclear waste from less secure sites at the nation’s 65 nuclear power plants and other facilities such as the Savannah River Site near Aiken and consolidate it into a safe and secure underground facility that is guarded and protected from natural disaster.

The bill also would authorize payments of up to $100 million per year to states that are housing defense nuclear waste that had been scheduled to be moved to Yucca Mountain. Those payments would begin in 2017, according to the news release.

This provision is important to South Carolina. The Savannah River Site is holding large amounts of defense-related nuclear waste that was supposed to begin heading to Yucca Mountain in 2017. Instead, there’s an uncertain and potentially unsafe future for that waste that never was supposed to be stored here on a long-term basis.

The story of Yucca Mountain now is familiar. It was on course to open before politics intervened and the Obama administration reversed course on a facility that was approved and funded. Yucca Mountain now is all but dead as a site for the waste repository, thanks in large measure to Nevada Sen. Harry Reid who is adamantly opposed to the waste site being put in his home state.

Even though the project is on life support ratepayers continue to pay the surcharge and the federal government continues to hold money for a project that some officials never intend to build.

The need for a repository is acute. There are nearly 55,000 metric tons of waste being stored at the nation’s nuclear power plants. Although the waste is relatively safe at those sites, it is more vulnerable to natural disaster, accident or terrorist attack than it would be in a secure repository. There are another 12,800 tons of waste being stored at former nuclear weapons sites across the country, including the Savannah River Site, according to a recent report in The State newspaper.

Also of concern is that nuclear energy is emerging as an important piece of our nation’s energy portfolio moving forward, and there is a strong push to build new commercial nuclear reactors. But that industry’s renaissance cannot take place on a large scale if there is not an effective plan in place for disposing of the waste that it generates. The most appropriate answer to that problem is Yucca Mountain. But that plain-as-your-nose solution is all but dead thanks to a foot-dragging, flip-flopping approach by Congress and the White House that has netted no alternative solutions.

It is extraordinarily frustrating that finding a safe place to store that waste has gotten bogged down in politics.

Graham’s bill would provide an equitable solution if the government is not going to build the Yucca Mountain repository. An even better outcome would be for this legislation to push this issue to the forefront and cajole Congress and the administration into setting aside politics and opening the Yucca Mountain repository that really is the safest place to store America’s spent nuclear fuel.

The story of Yucca Mountain now is familiar. It was on course to open before politics intervened and the Obama administration reversed course on a facility that was approved and funded. Yucca Mountain now is all but dead as a site for the waste repository, thanks in large measure to Nevada Sen. Harry Reid who is adamantly opposed to the waste site being put in his home state.

Even though the project is on life support ratepayers continue to pay the surcharge and the federal government continues to hold money for a project that some officials never intend to build.

The need for a repository is acute. There are nearly 55,000 metric tons of waste being stored at the nation’s nuclear power plants. Although the waste is relatively safe at those sites, it is more vulnerable to natural disaster, accident or terrorist attack than it would be in a secure repository. There are another 12,800 tons of waste being stored at former nuclear weapons sites across the country, including the Savannah River Site, according to a recent report in The State newspaper.

Also of concern is that nuclear energy is emerging as an important piece of our nation’s energy portfolio moving forward, and there is a strong push to build new commercial nuclear reactors. But that industry’s renaissance cannot take place on a large scale if there is not an effective plan in place for disposing of the waste that it generates. The most appropriate answer to that problem is Yucca Mountain. But that plain-as-your-nose solution is all but dead thanks to a foot-dragging, flip-flopping approach by Congress and the White House that has netted no alternative solutions.

It is extraordinarily frustrating that finding a safe place to store that waste has gotten bogged down in politics.

Graham’s bill would provide an equitable solution if the government is not going to build the Yucca Mountain repository. An even better outcome would be for this legislation to push this issue to the forefront and cajole Congress and the administration into setting aside politics and opening the Yucca Mountain repository that really is the safest place to store America’s spent nuclear fuel.